Russian Proton-M rocket fails. MexSat-1/Centenario satellite lost

The MexSat-1/Centenario satellite blasting off atop a Proton-M rocket (Image courtesy Tsenki/Roscosmos. All rights reserved)
The MexSat-1/Centenario satellite blasting off atop a Proton-M rocket (Image courtesy Tsenki/Roscosmos. All rights reserved)

It was almost noon yesterday in Kazakhstan when the MexSat-1 satellite, also called Centenario to celebrate the centenary of the Mexican Revolution, was launched on a Proton-M rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. After about 10 minutes, however, something malfunctioned in the rocket’s third stage, causing the loss of the satellite.

The satellite MexSat-1/Centenario was supposed to be part of a small constellation of three communications satellites that the Mexican government will use for various purposes, from national security to humanitarian applications. The MexSat-2 satellite is scheduled to be launched in a few months but on an American rocket Atlas 5 in an operation managed by ULA (United Launch Alliance). The MexSat-3 satellite, smaller than the other two, was put into orbit in 2012 using an Ariane 5 rocket.

Yesterday’s launch was rather confused. At first everything went well but when there was a malfunction in the Proton-M rocket’s third stage chaos started also regarding updates on the situation. For some hours various unofficial news came from various press agencies and it took some time before the MexSat-1 satellite was declared lost.

ILS (International Launch Services), the company that managed the launch, initially claimed to have telemetry data from the Proton-M rocket. At that point, however, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, had already declared that that an emergency had arisen with the loss of telemetry and news agencies were releasing statements on the launch failure.

It was found that due to an unknown problem with the Proton-M rocket third stage enging suffered an emergency shutdown. The failure occurred at about 161 km (about 100 miles) altitude, enough to cause the disintegration of the satellite in its fall to the ground.

Possible debris of the satellite and the rocket that didn’t disintegrate could have fallen in the area near the city of Chita, in Siberia, near the border with Mongolia and China. The hope is that at least the toxic rocket propellant burned completely.

An official investigation was immediately started and that means that the Proton-M rockets are grounded until its conclusion. It’s a bad situation for Russia whereas the Soyuz rockets are also grounded pending the outcome of the investigation on the recent mishap to the Progress M-27M spaceship.

For the Proton-M rockets the situation is worse because this is the latest in a series of mishaps. Almost exactly a year ago, a sophisticated telecommunications satellite was lost. The Proton-M rockets are the most important in Russia for commercial launches so they’ll need to seriously address these issues and also push on the development of the new Angara rockets to avoid major economic losses.

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